Friday, November 20, 2009

The Three Historical Unifiers of Japan

The three most important names in Japanese history are the "three unifiers" who brought the country out of its chaotic "warring states" period, and today these three men are so popular that you can find self-help books on how to pattern your life after theirs. First was Nobunaga, who nearly unified the country before his death. He was famous for being calculating in everything he did, and if you manage yourself using the Nobunaga Method you divorce yourself from emotion in single-minded pursuit of your goal. Nobunaga's lieutenant Hideyoshi was a peasant who managed the unlikely feat of becoming the most powerful man in Japan. He excelled at forming social bonds with others, so if you live your life by the Hideyoshi Principle you should maintain close relationships with those around you. Finally there was Ieyasu Tokugawa, who defeated his enemies at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, becoming the Shogun ushering in 250 years of peace known as the Edo Period. He was famous for boldness tempered with caution, and also for working to build a "big tent," as he did when he allowed his former enemies to keep their fiefs after he defeated them. These famous names from Japan's history show up in popular culture in interesting places, for example re-imagined as characters in video games.

Japan's unifiers show up in popular culture in interesting places like video games.

Heisei Dates

The other day my wife asked me, "Is it 2008? Or 2009? I forget." This would probably be difficult to do outside of Japan, but here it's possible here due to the Japanese calendar system, which marks years by the current Emperor. The current year is Heisei 21, the 21st year of the reign of Emperor Akihito -- although don't expect any Japanese to know that name, as he's always called "Emperor Heisei" in Japanese -- and any kind of official document will always refer to this year as Heisei 21 rather than 2009. Having two systems to remember important dates in can be a challenge -- for example, I came to Japan in Heisei 3 (1991), my kids were born in Heisei 7 and 8 (1995 and 1996), and my car's sha-ken (a maintenance check-up you have to get every 2 years) is due in March of Heisei 23 (2011).

Former PM stud-muffin Obuchi was the one to announce the Heisei era name.

Yankii-zuwari, or Squatting like a Yankee

Although I've been in Japan for 18 years, there are some things I've never really mastered, like eating nattou, the famous fermented soybeans that my kids love to have for breakfast. I can't read "air kanji" that a Japanese person will write with their finger, and I have trouble perceiving the secret messages Japanese see in numbers, like November 22nd being the official Happy Married Couples Day, since 11/22 can be read ii fuufu, meaning a married couple that's very close. I was also never able to master the Japanese art of yankii-zuwari, or "squatting like a yankee." In Japan there's a class of semi-delinquint young people who like to show their rebellious nature by dyeing their hair blonde (which usually comes out orange), and these people came to be called yankii, no doubt because they looked like Americans with their interestingly colored hair. There's a certain squatting pose these tough boys are famous for which is especially difficult for foreigners to pull off without rolling over like a daruma. The reason the Japanese can sit comfortably in this pose for hours is that Japanese-style toilets lack seats, and are basically flat recipticles you squat over to use, so these squatting muscles are well developed from a young age.


Can you "squat like a yankee"? It's hard to do without lifting your feet, which is cheating.

Gift Ideas for Christmas, Convention Announcement

There's almost an unlimited number of gift ideas at J-List. One good place to start looking might be ourextensive selection of Totoro and Ghibli products, or our new Hello Kitty & Sanrio page. In addition to our printable PDF J-List gift certificates, you can now give iTunes Japan Music Store credit as a gift to someone. Sometimes the best gifts are ones they don't expect, like wacky snacks or kawaii traditional items. You might help someone get started studying Japanese with our Japanese in Mangaland or our White Rabbit kanji flashcards -- it will certainly be a gift they remember for a long time. Of course, adding the J-List Wishlist Addition RSS feed to your RSS reader of choice is a great way to get a constant stream of random and fun items.
Will you be at Anime USA, the anime convention held in Arlington, vir---ia this weekend? If so, please come by the J-List booth and see our friends, who have tons of T-shirts, games, manga and more. Tell them Peter sent you and get free Japanese pocket tissue!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Far East Network: The Voice of America in Japan

You've been in Japan too long when you air-drum in your car while listening to the U.S. Military radio news opening, which goes "here's what happening...around the Kanto Plain." The primary source of English-language radio in the Tokyo area is the Far East Network (now known as American Forces Network-Japan), the AM radio station that serves the U.S. military forces stationed in Japan, and it's a staple of civilian gaijin who want to listen to the radio in English, too. In addition to NPR news and various other programming, FEN serves up top forty and country music countdowns on the weekend which I'd listen to when I got homesick. Because it's a non-profit station, in place of radio commercials they play short pieces on "our proud military heritage" which give interesting tidbits of military history from the past. The U.S. maintains dozens of military bases in Japan, especially in the Yokosuka area near Yokohama, on Okinawa and also in Sasebo, Nagasaki, where those delicious hamburgers come from.

The Far East Network has been the voice of America in Japan since the Occupation.

Mixing Japanese and English Grammer

Because the Japanese generally study six years of English during junior high and high school, there's a tendency for English vocabulary and grammar to "leak" into the Japanese language, resulting in some interesting new creations. In my last update I wrote that my wife is a shikaku getter or a person who loves to "get" random qualifications, like her forklift operator's license. The word "getter" (one who gets something) doesn't exist in English, yet it's quite a logical idea once you get around the mental lock your brain tries to impose on nonsensical words. Often the English-er suffix added to Japanese words to imply "a person who likes something," like mayoler meaning a person who likes mayonnaise a lot, or tsunderer, which would be a word for a person who loves tsundere anime characters. The Japanese will often take the "tic" ending of words like "romantic" and attach it to new words, resulting in new slang creations like manga-chikku (as "tic" is pronounced in Japanese, for phonetic reasons), meaning "just like something out of a manga story."

The Japanese word for someone who loves mayonnaise is mayoler.

Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino on Japanese TV

The other day TV viewers in Japan got a treat: Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt appearing on the popular variety show Bistro SMAP. SMAP (which stands for "Sports Music Assemble People" in case you were wondering) is a popular -- what? boy band? post-boy band? they all pushing 40 so let's go with "talent group" -- consisting of five members who sing, dance and do comedy skits, which has been a fixture of the J-POP world since they debuted in 1991. On their TV show, they invite distinguished guests to eat a fabulous gourmet meal cooked by the group members while the guests relax and talk. Both Tarantino and "Burapii" (as he's universally known here) love Japan, and it was interesting to see them in this unique setting, being asked who their favorite directors were or what shops they like to hit while in Tokyo. (Brad is always looking for Totoro and Spirited Away stuff for his kids.) Even before the show began I knew I'd be seeing Japan's "Queen of Subtitles" Natsuko Toda, the woman who translates all the top movies and whose personal schedule can affect Hollywood film release dates. Sure enough, she was there serving as the personal interpreter for Brad.

Catching "Burapii" and Tarantino on TV was fun. Brad didn't slurp his noodles loudly enough.

Monday, November 16, 2009

ESL Teaching

When I look back on my 8-year career teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Japan, I can't think of another job that could have brought me into contact with a wider range of people. Because I spoke Japanese well, I never had a shortage of job offers, which is kind of odd when you think about it since my abilities as an English teacher would presumably be more important -- whatever. I taught a wide range of age groups, including kids so young my only real role was to get them used to the idea of being around a foreigner. I taught older Japanese at community centers, too, and would smile when they brought me vegetables they'd grown in their garden. The wealthiest student I ever had was the wife of a former president of the Sapporo Ichiban Ramen Company, and we'd regularly hold "classes" while drinking green tea and admiring the momiji trees turning red in the autumn. I also taught English to a great group of handicapped people at a facility in our neighborhood, and learned a lot about competitive wheelchair racing.

Teaching English in Japan wasn't a walk in the park, but I did meet a lot of people.

Hello Kitty Standardized Test

The Japanese love to take standardized tests, and many people use them as a tool to better themselves over the course of their lives. While most of the tests are pretty run-of-the-mill, qualifying a person's abilities at speaking English, say, or using various software tools in a business environment, there are quite a few interesting ones, such as a test for calculating numbers rapidly with an imaginary abacus, your fingers moving over wooden beads that aren't there. There are tests for speedy and accurate operating of a cash register in a supermarket, a test for memorizing a train schedule, and (good for us gaijin), the Standard Kanji Test and the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. My wife is what's known as a shikaku getter or someone who loves to "collect" random qualifications. She's got a license to prepare sushi and sashimi, is legally able to operate a forklift, and has a certification for handling dangerous materials, in case J-List ever wants to open a gas station as a side business. Now there's a bizarre new test to study for, if you like: the Hello Kitty Standardized Test, commissioned by Sanrio to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Japan's second most famous cat. I assume the test consists various trivia like, how tall is Hello Kitty? (as tall as five apples) and so on.

If you know your Hello Kitty trivia, maybe you can pass the test.

Who's Your Favorite Tsundere?

It's fun to watch anime and pay attention to the various character archetypes that show up. Like the ojosama (rich girl) who is the daughter of an international zaibatsu trading group, who generally comes in "cute and naive" or "laughing evil villain" flavors. Or the good-natured female childhood friend who always comes to wake up the main character every morning. One of the most popular genres of anime characters of the past few years has been tsundere (TSOON-deh-reh), which describes (female) characters who are angry and confrontational one moment, then all sweetness and light the next. (The word comes from tsun-tsun meaning "angry" or "cranky," and dere-dere meaning "heads-over-heels in love.") Some of anime's most popular characters conform to this classic mode, including Taiga Aisaka from Toradora!, Louise from Zero no Tsukaima and Shana from Shana of the Blazing Eyes. The cool thing about these characters is, they're all voiced by legendary voice actress Rie Kugimiya, who has a huge following by fans around the world. This gave us the idea to honor Ms. Kugimiya with a really cool J-List original T-shirt featuring some of her characters' most famous lines, like, Urusai! Urusai! Urusai! ("Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!") or Damare! Soshite kusare! ("Shut up! And go rot!") with a cool kanji design. It's in stock now and ready for you to order.

Taiga from Toradora is my own favorite tsundere-chara. Who's yours?

All About J-List T-Shirts

When J-List brought out our first "Wacky Japanese T-shirt" in 1997, we didn't know what we were starting. We just liked the way kanji looked, and thought that wacky messages like "Now Accepting Applications for a Japanese Girlfriend" seemed like something people might like to wear. Twelve years later our fun line of anime- and kanji-themed shirts, warm hoodies and hats have really proved themselves popular, which makes us happy. You can browse all our wacky T-shirts, view shirts for girls and kids, check our awesome hoodies (which are the higher quality 80/20 blends that stay soft for years, not the inferior 50/50 blends other stores sell), or see the top 50 T-shirts on the site now. All shirts printed by our professional staff in San Diego (not mass-produced in Asia), and all are full U.S. sizes.